Hypnotic and religious experience as play: the value of studying hypnosis

    The roots of my unbelief go back to a time when my father, who was a friend of the theologian William Barclay, came home one night and said,

“ Barclay was saying tonight that Zeus was the chief Greek god. Zeus translates in Latin to Deus and Deus Pater is Jupiter, or God the Father. So when we worship God the Father, we are really worshipping Jupiter.” 

I remember as a ten or eleven year old saying to myself, if Barclay can say that, then he can’t really believe  in God.

    A truism may be defined as a statement that is clearly true and well known. If I play you at chess it is obvious that we are playing. If I play you at tennis it is a truism that we are playing.  But what if it is not self evident as with hypnosis and religion? I hope that by the end of this essay, it will be a truism for you that hypnosis and religion are forms of play.

    Many years ago I met a girl who was a devout Catholic. I argued against her religion and she, in turn, used exactly the same arguments against mine. Fancying myself as a scientist, I figured that, since she was wrong, and since she was using exactly the same form and logic as I was, then I must be wrong too. She reasoned, I think, that since I was wrong then she must be right. It was during one of these conversations that I suddenly realised that there was no God. I underwent a conversion experience a few days later when I woke up one morning, feeling different, suffused with joy and relief. I asked myself what was different and the answer like an epiphany was, there is no God.

    So I asked myself the question what is going on here, with religion? About the same time I read about an Irish divine who said something to the effect that; “You can kill us. We’re used to that. You can persecute us. We’re used to that. The one thing we can’t stand is that you should try to explain us.”  Ever since that day, having failed with pure argument, I have sought to explain religion.

    Soon afterwards I read Leslie Weatherhead’s “Psychology Religion and Healing” (1951). In the chapter on hypnosis, he denied that there was any connection between hypnosis and religion. Figuring that when a man of religion says something is false then it must be true, I came across another volume “Religious Aspects of Hypnosis” by William Bryan (1962) which acknowledged the fact. 

About experience.

Everyone has experiences and to each of us these are real. If I am kicked in the shins the experience is real as I have the pain and bruises to prove it. If I go to the cinema and watch a film I have an experience which is illusory (i.e. In Play).  To some this is also a “real” experience. However an experience cannot be real and illusory at the same time, otherwise words cease to have meaning. We must find a way to discriminate between the two. Perhaps “real experience” and “imaginary experience” will do the trick.

    It is the failure to distinguish between the two that results in much futile study. The research and statistics you do when you don’t know what you’re doing. Failure to distinguish between the two, also results in the ‘Hypnosis is real” and the “God is real” fallacies. Perhaps we should talk about play experiences or “ludic consciousness” as suggested by the theologian Harvey Cox in his book “ The Seduction of the Spirit.” (1973 ) pp184-189

I was fortunate in that, as a medical practitioner, I qualified to join the Australian Society of Hypnosis and to study with them. I will mention hypnosis as little as possible. It is simply that hypnotic experience is a delusion – a well researched delusion – and as such, it provides the perfect entrée to an understanding of play and religion (The God experience as Bishop Spong calls it). You will read books on religion which give barely a mention of play. You can read books on play and even these are unhelpful as regards it’s  understanding. It is simply that, when you compare the phenomena of hypnosis by which hypnosis is usually described, it becomes obvious that the same phenomena are found in play and religious experience.

    My researches into hypnosis indicated that a) role playing was involved and b) that it was culturally determined. Watch that word Culture because it will become increasingly relevant.

    Role playing means that a patient “becomes” hypnotised in the same way a child becomes Batman or Spiderman. Peter Field covers this aspect nicely in Humanistic Aspects of Hypnotic Communication (1973)pp481-493 which is still in print.  The fact that play is involved invites the question; is play a sufficient explanation for all the phenomena of hypnosis and religion?  I think it is.

    Culturally determined, means that our modern ideas of hypnosis stem from a time when Charcot , at the Salpètrière in Paris, hypnotised  actresses and hysterics, sometimes watched by Freud. How this arose is an accident of history and is beautifully explained by Graham Wagstaff in his book “Hypnosis, Compliance and Belief” (1981) pp 214 -220

    The next book that influenced me was by the cultural historian, Johan Huizinga.  “Homo Ludens” was subtitled “A Study of the Play Element Of Culture,” in the original German, but in it’s English translation it was called “A Study of the Play Element In Culture.” Huizinga objected to the change in title because he meant to imply that culture was composed in major part of play, not in minor part which he thought had been suggested by the change in title. 

    Think about it. You open a newspaper and what do you find? Sport and 

competition, law, theatre, celebrities , war and war games, film, TV, and stories – all containing play elements. Huinzinga pointed out that the words delusion, illusion, elusive and ludicrous derive from the Latin verb ludere meaning to play. One is deluded if one thinks that that which is in play, is real. It can be very difficult separating the two. What needs to be etched inside the skull of every person who is interested in religion and hypnosis, is the etymology of the word “delusion”, because therein lies the clue to what is really going on.

Another way of putting it is that if one is playing but doesn’t know it, then one is deluded. This is true if, for example one is deeply engrossed in playing soccer or reading a book. If one stopped and thought about it one could see that this was play, But one is so deeply involved that is seems that one is engaged in a real enterprise and hence one is, at that time, deluded.

    Many years ago during an episode of the Australian soap opera Number 96, a flat became vacant and a dozen people wrote to Channel 9 asking if they could have the vacant flat. Similarly during an episode of Coronation Street, a woman Deirdre Rashid, was wrongfully jailed by a magistrate. Hundreds of people phoned the Home Office to protest and the Prime Minister Tony Blair jokingly stated in the House that he would have the Home Secretary look into the matter. In both cases people had mistaken that which was in play, for reality. The film Sister Betty is a film about a film where a girl is similarly deluded.

Huizinga also contrasted the cheat with the spoilsport:

“All play has its rules. They determine what ‘holds’ in the temporary world circumscribed by play…. The player who trespasses against the rules, or ignores them, is a ‘spoilsport’. The spoilsport is not the same as the false player, the cheat; for the latter pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it still acknowledges a magic circle. It is curious to note how much more lenient society is to the cheat than to the spoilsport. This is because the spoilsport shatters the play world itself. By withdrawing from the game he reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others. 

He robs play of its illusion – a pregnant word which means literally ‘in play’ (from inlusio, illudere or inludere). Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play community.”

I fear that Richard Dawkins, with his most recent book, falls into this category. The God Delusion means literally, “The God from Play”.

The phenomena of hypnosis.

Those with formal training in hypnosis will recognise  music, laughter, confabulation, the use of dolls, metaphor, cuing, age regression, age progression, the favourite room, legitimacy and authority, and more, as phenomena of hypnosis. 

The hypnotherapist, confronted by a patient with unresolved grief from the death of her father, may choose to take the patient, in her imagination, in the present tense, down a long corridor which has many doors leading off it. Each door represents the passage of time backwards. Behind one door is a room where sits the deceased. The patient can spend time talking to her father and saying goodbye to him, in an attempt to resolve her grief. This technique is known as time regression. Going back further in time it is possible to talk to Jesus, who may or may not have existed, as though he were alive. Thus the “living Jesus” can be seen as an example of time regression.

Things need not be as complicated as this however. Simply talk to the deceased in the present tense as though he were alive, in the same way as a child talks to an imaginary friend. This is prayer and is the basis of the Resurrection myth.

The therapist faced with a patient who has phobias or obsessions, may choose to take the patient down that corridor, where each door represents some time in the future. the patient can experience an uncomfortable situation, and deal with it, as if it were real, in an attempt at cure. This is known as time progression and the reader will readily understand that it corresponds to prophesy and revelation in the religious sphere. You may also understand what Augustine of Hippo ( Confessions. Book XI [XX] 26 ) was talking about when he said, “ there be three times; a present of things past, a present of things present and a present of things future.”

    A therapist may take his patient through a door, down some stairs, deeper and deeper, into a room. The patient is encouraged to spend some time there. lingering and imagining the most beautiful room. The fittings, the paintings , the view. the furniture. This is The Favourite Room technique and you will readily see that this can be Heaven.

    The paradigm game which explains religious and hypnotic experience is Ouija, in which a board is used which is  inscribed with numbers and the letters of the alphabet. The players together, grasp a marker or upturned glass and in response to simple questions guide the marker around the board. The more deeply involved they become, the more the players experience it as though it was happening to them rather than that they are the instigators of all the events. Attribution is to other than self or, put another way, the locus of control is to some unseen force and not to themselves. The illusion is all the more easily achieved by the fact that, of say four players, one will be contributing only a quarter of the volitional effort. In a crowd one feels easily swept away by events.

There is no God. I know this because I have met Him. Another little play act is worth describing as it illustrates some further points. I have recently taken to inviting my audience to meet Him. Contrary to popular opinion he is not an old man with a beard, but a three-year-old boy named Travis whom I first met many years ago as the imaginary friend of a little boy I once knew. It is important to emphasise to your audience that you are playing, lest they think that you are deluded. Bring out Travis and sit him on an empty chair. Introduce him to the audience and try to start a conversation with him. The first thing you notice is that he cannot speak, so someone else in the group has to answer for Travis. Ask him if he would like a biscuit and someone else has to ‘interpret’. Yes he would like a biscuit and he is particularly partial to those wafery things and even to a glass of wine. You get the idea. 

    Keep this up and you are sure to dissolve in laughter, another play phenomenon found in some religious services.

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that the interpreter himself is responsible for what comes out of Travis’ mouth. Misattribution is to Travis. 

The locus of control is perceived as being with Travis.

    The practical effect is, that we should recognise that when some one attributes his thoughts and actions to God, it is none other than the interpreter or theologian, who is to blame. Misattribution is to God. The locus of control is perceived as being with God. We must pin the blame on the theologians who spread their crazy sick ideas from their sick minds and attribute them to a god.

    The god I grew up with was a pretty decent, intellectual, sensible and helpful fellow. But that is because the theologian who dreamed him up ( William Barclay), was decent, intellectual, sensible and helpful.

    One of the problems we have is this religious mania that’s going around, and I’m very opposed to it. We’ve just had a United States president who was a religious enthusiast and I, along with some others I think, feel compelled to do something about it. It’s not much good just sitting back watching events unfold. It now seems to me demonstrably false that there is a god and one can use a role playing tactic to actually show this. It is not just that there is no god but it’s the lunatics and people who think there is a god and who talk to this god who get everything wrong and put their own spin and their own perversions into any such discussion. They are as a rule very unhealthy, debased, paranoid, judgmental, mentally unsound,misogynistic,sexually perverse, power hungry individuals who give their voice as a god, and people are confused between this play acting that they indulge in, and reality. People are quite sure that these vicious harmful people who describe their visions of their god are actually describing that a god is actually responsible for it . It has nothing to do with a god. It has everything to do with these mad, bad individuals.

    The impulse to religion is the impulse to play. It cannot therefore be eradicated, nor should it. People must understand that religious experience is just a game and that to think it is real is to be deluded. It is like being engrossed in a book and when the book is shut, one comes back to reality. Or when one watches a movie, then walks out into the street, it is back to reality.

    Having worked out that hypnosis was play and therefore a game, it was the Belgian psychologist Thierry Melchior who, for me at least, put the finishing touches to the solution when he wrote ;  “Hypnosis is a game…. I would state it a bit differently : it is a very peculiar game, because it is a game which actively denies itself as being a game. In other words, one of the rules of this game is ‘this is not a game’ “.

    Substituting religion for hypnosis one can then come up with a definition of religion.

“Religion is a game which is culturally determined in which one player, the religionist, attempts to delude others, the rest of us, using all the phenomena of

play at our disposal. It is a peculiar game however, for it is a game which actively

denies itself as being a game. In other words one of the rules of this game is  ‘this is not a game’. Those players who believe it to be real, are deluded.”

    Dawkins in his book “The God Delusion”  attempts to explain religion in 

evolutionary terms. He argues that since religion is present in all cultures, it must confer some selective advantage on our species or within our species. The shoe doesn’t fit because religion is man made and could not have evolved through natural selection. We have to consider that in the case of humans, we ourselves have influenced our development. Human selective processes, these last few millennia, have more in common with, selective breeding, sexual selection and domestication of wild animals, than they have with natural selection.

    At our level of intelligence we have to consider that culture has a direct effect on our reproductive rates and patterns. Our language, stories, myths, fashions, wars, material wants, have all had a direct effect on us, quite independent, I think, of natural selection, and these are active influences rather than the passive influences of natural selection.

Perhaps the question from Dawkins’s point of view could be restated as ” What is the evolutionary basis of Play?”  Is religion a byproduct of Play?

    Roy Baumeister, a Prof. of Social Psychology, in 2007, gave an address “Is There Anything Good About Men?” which is available on the Net. He argues that Culture is a biological strategy. He states:

    ” Culture is relatively new in evolution. It continues the

line of evolution that made animals social. I understand culture as a kind of system that enables the human group to work together effectively, using information. Culture is a new, improved way of being social.

     Feminism has taught us to see culture as men against women. Instead, I think

the evidence indicates that culture emerged mainly with men and women working together, but working against other groups of men and women. Often the most intense and productive competitions were groups of men against other groups of men, though both groups depended on support from women.

    Culture enables the group to be more than the sum of its parts (its members).

Culture can be seen as a biological strategy. Twenty people who work together, in a cultural system, sharing information and dividing up tasks and so forth, will all live better

survive and reproduce better – than if those same twenty people lived in the same forest but did everything individually.” 

    Religion like hypnosis, is culturally determined and therefore playful. Play is often competitive and it seems to be competition between cultures, that explains the “survival of the fittest” element which Dawkins seeks.

    Finally a word about the Trinity. Guess what? – another play phenomenon. In one of his TV series Desmond Morris shows footage of a kitten playing with a leaf. That cat was playing with the leaf as if it were a bird or a mouse. Leaf, mouse and bird were three in one (Trinity). We cannot interview the cat to find out what it thinks it is doing. How would it rationalize its behaviour? For cat substitute human being. For leaf substitute bread and/or wine. Then you can interview the human being and find out what his theories are. This is theology. Bear in mind that we are ‘interviewing the cat’ when we talk to religious people. For bread and/or wine, substitute another culturally determined idea, namely hypnosis, and again interview the person. The result is some of the theories of hypnosis.


Harvey Cox. (1973). The Seduction Of The Spirit – The Use And Misuse Of People’s Religion. pp184-189. New York. Touchstone

Field P.B.(1973). Humanistic Aspects of Hypnotic Communication in “Hypnosis: Research Developments and Perspectives”. Ed. Fromm and Shor. London. Paul Elek. pp481-493

Graham Wagstaff. Hypnosis Compliance and Belief (1981) Brighton. Harvester Press. pp 214 -220

Johan Huizinga. (1949) Homo Ludens : A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Routledge and Kegan Paul

Dawkins R. (2006) The God Delusion. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Company

Leslie D. Weatherhead. (1959) Psychology Religion and Healing. London. Hodder and Stoughton.

Saint Augustine.(1953) Confessions. London.  J.M.Dent & Sons Ltd

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